Holding what I am; At the wheel with Emily Nenni

Sagebrush is packed, people spilling out of the Austin dancehall towards food carts and the back beer garden bazaar. Heaven must be like this. It’s nearly 2am—the party powers on for Sentimental Family Band’s album release show triple bill. It felt more like a festival than a Friday night around town. Emily Nenni launches into a raucous cover of Terry Allen’s hard-living self-assured Texas anthem ‘Amarillo Highway.’ The room flips into singalong mode. Nenni flips the chorus—“Dust bowling Baddie.” She’s holding what she is, the wheel.

It’s a career that maybe might not have been. For a long time Emily wanted nothing to do with that wheel.

Born in San Jose, CA, raised in Orinda, CA, a small town turned bucolic suburb of Berkeley, Nenni is no cowgirl, no valley girl, no southern gal, no nothing but herself, and she’ll be the first to tell you. Her mom is an educator. Her dad a radio DJ (now programming lead at Pandora). Both from passionate Italian and religious homes in which emotion was revered as much as work ethic. She’s one of three sisters. Her middle class upbringing was filled with music across genres, with plenty of Patsy Cline, Hank Sr., and Lucinda Williams mixed in among the more modern modes of Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliot, Beyonce or Usher—and that one favorite album, ‘Jolene,’ which she would play over and over again, singing along nearly every day in the bedroom.

After high school, she studied audio engineering at Columbia College in Chicago for a year and change before dropping out, moving back home, working the front desk at the Oakwood Athletic Club, saving money, and then, at 21, pointing that wheel to Nashville, where she arrived without knowing a soul. Ten years later, she’s about to release her second full length album and make her Opry debut with a band full of her best friends.

That’s the Instagram take. “There is the beautiful, and not so beautiful of everything,” Emily Nenni says over the phone as she preps for her own album release show and Opry debut. It’s Spring in Nashville and the birds chirp and sing the entire time we’re on the phone. She’s talking about herself but also the challenges most people are facing today. It’s harder and harder to get to the complex truth—its far easier to pick a lane and never change, never take the time to consider the breath (from heavy sighs to hellish hyperventilating) of each life on this hard ass highway. Deep down we all know why Terry Allen (and so many of us) just want to drive. But we also must at times relent. We don’t always have our hands on that wheel.

Here’s another take: Emily’s a suburban girl from the Bay Area with no authentic claim to old time country music. Scoliosis put her in casted corset-like back braces starting in middle school and stole away much of her adolescent social life. A spinal fusion surgery at 17 put her to bedrest after years of near constant pain, emotional and physical. A metal rod in her back straightened her spine, making her several inches taller but prevented her from physical exertion. It all left Emily on the teetering edges of depression and what she says, “beyond insecure.”

Even today, on the verge of that Opry debut, she gets nervous singing in her own house, anxious her boyfriend will hear, and she not sound great. This from a woman who taught herself to stack vocal harmonies on GarageBand on her mother’s laptop, but who also arrived in Nashville not wanting to be a country singer but instead maybe a songwriter somewhere behind the scenes as she waited tables at any given restaurant or sold cowboy boots as she would later.

“I visited once,” she says of the country music capital. “It just seemed like a cozy and affordable place to live.” Nenni is not your Nashville or bust cliché. “I didn’t come here to be a performer or musician,” she says. “I didn’t think that was really an option. Until I got to Nashville I would have never wanted to be on stage. I had zero interest singing in front of people.”

Upon arriving all alone in Nashville, some of her first memories of being social are of Robert’s Western World, the historic honky tonk bar and short-order kitchen on Broadway, watching Brazilbilly and others do their thing. She’d go alone, find a table, have some of her first-ever beers (PBR). She eventually got the (liquid) courage to befriend the doorman they called Hot Carl, who she greased with some fresh baked cookies so she could stand by him and the stage, protected from the shoulder-to-shoulder madness that is often Robert’s. More cookies for the band and before long she was up on that stage singing standards. “I think looking back,” Emily says, “It was just older men seeing this 21-year-old girl and saying, ‘hey want to jump up on stage.’ It messed with my confidence a little. Do they like me because I’m talented or just because I am young and cute?”

It motivated her to work harder, so that she could be certain it was her skill. It was at Robert’s that she realized this is the music she wanted to make. “I wanted to be a better vocalist, better songwriter, better band leader,” she says. “And all that takes practice.” Practice, putting in the work, is a theme that comes up often in conversations with her. Her willingness to take a chance on herself comes from knowing her own work ethic.

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Enter one of her first Nashville friends, Dave Martin, who after one seeing Emily at Robert’s encouraged her to go to Santa’s Pub in East Nashville. “There’s people your age making this kind of music,” Emily recalls him telling her. And so she went. At the time it was folks like Cale Tyson, Pete Lindberg, and Luke Bell on stage. Her first night Dave introduced her to Carter Brallier, the bass player who started the Ice Cold Pickers, the Santa’s house band of sorts that puts together weekly Sunday sessions. “He was like, oh cool, you want to sing one tonight,” Emily says. “And I was like, what!? But I did. Cale played guitar for me, because I had never played guitar in a band before, standing in front of a microphone. I sang ‘Blue Kentucky Girl,’ because I had heard through the grapevine that Cale’s ex was Kelsey Waldon, and I knew she knew that song, so figured Cale and the band would to. It feels weird saying that but it’s true, and they did.”

If Robert’s showed her the type of music she wanted to make, it was Santa’s that showed her the scene she wanted to join. A week later she aimed to go back and prove to herself she could confidently play guitar and sing in front of a band and crowd. So she did. That week and pretty much every week since then her quickly filling schedule allows. “And I still would go to Robert’s,” she says. “So I would get my weekly practice in; get my stage fright out; boost my confidence; I was 22; It was such an education, especially with the Ice Cold Pickers at Santa’s. Two hours a week singing covers in that double-wide trailer; that was my version of going to college.”

Ryan Jennings remembers it well. Born and bred Nashville, Ryan makes up one half of Teddy and the Rough Riders, which also works as Emily’s touring band. He and Carter grew up on the same street, childhood buddies. When Ryan went off to college in Knoxville, Carter started up the Ice Cold Pickers; Ryan watched with excitement from afar, hearing of the likes of Emily and others making their way to the East Nashville scene. Upon returning to Nashville, he too took to the Santa’s stage, both solo and with Teddy’s, which he started in college with another childhood pal, Jack Quiggins, now Emily’s boyfriend. On stage one night, Ryan covered a Merle Haggard tune, ‘Somebody Else You’ve Known,’ and Emily introduced herself to him afterward. “That scene,” Ryan says, “is really pretty innocent; just wanting to talk to people, dance with people, no seduction or trying to get something out of it. Not putting anything on. It’s just a friendly group of musicians, and Emily fit right in. Just being herself.” No fresh baked cookies needed; they became fast friends. He’s still in her phone as “Ryan Rough Riders.”

Teddy’s was already making a name for itself with its unique brand of road dogging honky tonking country rock, and here comes this songwriter with a voice just a soulful Tina Turner click away from the classic country queens like Dolly Parton. “She writes songs for dancing,” Ryan says. “All her songs have a dancer in mind. She loves that; we all do. So it just grew from there. And while we have a lot of Teddy’s work to get after, being a part of her blowing up is pretty special.”

In 2015, at the veteran’s bar, American Legion Post 82, on the first-ever Honky Tonk Tuesday (now an institution in its own right), Emily gets on stage and plays her own songs for the first time. Before this it was mostly just a laptop listening. “It was the first Honky Tonk Tuesday,” Emily says in a reverential tone, “So it was like the six veterans who would hang there and probably five other people. A long table cut through the middle of the dance floor.” She flashes back: “OK I am on stage, playing my music, and what am I doing here? I didn’t know how to lead a band by any means. I had to get comfortable singing my songs in front of people. Now I’m more comfortable in front of larger groups than smaller groups.”

Emily found her home, especially Santa’s. It’s where she cut her teeth as a performer, where she met her now backing band. “We didn’t start playing together, really, until Jack and I started dating,” Emily says. “I knew of this band, Teddy and the Rough Riders, I would see flyers for them all over, but I would always miss their sets, opening for like Luke Bell at the Basement. There was even an after party at their house I was going to go to but then didn’t. It’s funny because I ended up two years later basically living at that house. I can’t remember exactly how it all happened.

“I maybe needed a band for one show, or I was recording ‘Hell of a Woman,’ that one song we added to my first album last, and I had the boys play on this extra track. They hit the road long before I did, had a booker long before I did, but they were down to do a double bill on the road. Their booker, Jon Prine, was kind enough to book some shows for me. These guys were just so generous and supportive with their time; they have taught me so much.”

“We feed off each other,” Jack says of the compliment when I tell him. “We have all these little sayings, like, if it’s good for you it’s good for us, and if it’s good for us it’s good for you. We’re all looking for longevity, not quick money. So we run it mostly ourselves. Like I do all the driving and merch, which comes from me probably being the most OCD of the three of us. Meanwhile Ryan is handling all the logistics and emails for Teddy’s at the same time as we’re working with Emily.”

To put it plainly, it’s hard out there for musicians and bands not playing to thousands of paying customers every couple nights, so the family band set up started to come together more concretely after Emily and Jack were together for the better part of a decade. “No one band I think can play enough to fill up their schedule completely,” says Jack. “So we were like, well, why don’t we just make this family thing a thing and Teddys became her touring band permanently. We’re pretty good about the balance, and right now Emily’s career is just popping off, and I’m so damn proud. I know Ryan and I both are. She works so hard. From Santa’s to man we did the Opry this week for the first time, we’re all just learning.”

Working, Learning, Practice, Education. There’s that unconscious throughline when you dig into Emily’s story. From her earliest memories where books and art and music by powerful women were placed in front of her and her sisters by her parents, to all of the people she’s learned from in the ten years she’s been in Nashville or on the road. One after the other, building blocks building toward something, but she never quite knew or knows to what. And she’s cool with that. She lives in the present as best she can, knowing there are no guarantees in life but hardship, and the need to take care of yourself, as hard as that can be, all our imperfections and obstacles staring us down.

“I felt I had no other option but to embrace my imperfections and how things might work out. I’m a naturally insecure person, the scoliosis took away so much of my teen years, but it also makes me just love and support the people who are around me, like those imperfections are the things that make you great. But it’s harder to see in yourself for sure. We’re all really hard on ourselves, the everyday struggle both personally and professionally.”

Her first record came together slowly over a year and a half. A few songs date back to California, written after her 4am-2pm shift at the gym, which freed her afternoon to work on her songwriting before walking the dog and making dinner for her parents (aka paying her rent). The slow burning live-to-tape recording, ‘Never One to Stay,’ that closes the record is but one of those demos from GarageBand and the first song she wrote in Nashville. The rest are made up of a hodgepodge of players, friends and acquaintances generous enough to lend a telecaster or steel. “I was trying to find my sound,” Emily says of the first record. “So there are some songs that are a different vibe, but that process over that time is how I found it, somewhat, just by writing in different ways, using different musicians.”

She uploaded it in 2017 to streaming services, as much to share with pickup bandmates to learn a song before a gig as much as anything. “I didn’t even promote it. I was just like here,” Emily says. “I’m gonna put this on the internet. I didn’t expect anything from it. I just really wanted to put it out in the world.” She wasn’t hawking it in the street or stages, but she had her first real demo tape. “I just figured I was gonna keep writing songs, so why not put these songs out into the world, to get them off my chest in a way to make room for new songs to be written.”

And that’s how it went for the next few years. While working full time day jobs, she’d get her weekly practice in at night, write new songs and release them. The two-song EP, ‘I Owe You Nothing,’ followed in similar fashion, backed by Teddy’s and recorded at their house. Then came ‘Long Game,’ another independent release recorded at engineer (and another childhood friend of the Teddy’s boys) Jack Davis’ house in early 2020. “We recorded it and then the tornado struck Nashville that night, and then it was COVID lockdown. I just thought, if I don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, and these songs are all finished, maybe I’ll just put it out, because I am ready to and once again, I’ll keep writing, and it’s not like I am doing anything else with my time. Might as well release something.”

Might as well. Might as well. The title track made her first real mark. “I thought it was the most boring song on the record. I was like, ‘boys is this boring?’ They were like, ‘no it’s great.’ I got nervous. Did I do a bad job? Did I write a bad song? But thankfully that song has been the one most well received and relatable to a lot of folks.” It’s all too easy to jump to the conclusion that for an artist writing almost only biographical songs full of feelings and female empowerment, ‘Long Game’ must be about her and her career, but in fact it was written with someone else in mind, a fellow artist who wallowed in what she saw as a lack of success, but who Emily saw as a unique and special and inspiring artist. Perhaps unconsciously it was both she admits after a few hours on the phone detailing her own long game path through this world and industry. It was, after all, only last year she quit her full-time job selling cowboy boots.

“I get it,” Emily says. “This thought that it was all for nothing, but I try my best to look at the positive side of things because otherwise, a lot of time life is hard and stressful and depressing and there are so many things in this world that are out of control. As someone who has up and down depression, you have to start your day intentionally wanting to have a good one, otherwise you just sit and rot. So with ‘Long Game,’ I really wanted to appreciate this time. For some people things happen so quick they don’t get to appreciate it, and it can affect their path moving forward. But I am learning so much, still, and I feel so lucky I have had the time to do that. I wouldn’t be satisfied leading my career with the knowledge I had ten years ago. I’ve learned so much about myself, about how the business works, which man, I knew nothing. To have patience and be present makes such a difference. To have the time to learn and get better. Even if you fuck up, you’re still learning. I want to keep learning.”

Wanting to learn and wanting a break from her restaurant job amid the pandemic landed her at Zapata Ranch, part of the Ranchlands conservation network in Southeastern, Colorado, where her friend, Anna LoPinto, was working as a wrangler. In fact, all the wranglers were women, as was the boss. Emily served breakfast and dinner, watched the boss’s baby, and played music once a week for guests; she dragged heavy bags of trash out amid sunsets breaking over Sand Dunes National Park. As she tells you on the title track to what would become her next album, all written on the ranch, you’d more likely find her playing with the dog than wrangling. After all, she physically couldn’t wrangle due to her back, but she could empathize with those doing the work and educate herself around all the workings of a real ranch. Out came songs celebrating the powerful women she found herself among. One day they regaled her with stories demeaning female barrel racers; Emily turned the tales into the second single, ‘Can Chaser.’

“I’d never write that song if not for those badass women,” Emily says. “I tried so specifically to like, hey, just want to clarify I am not a cowgirl. That’s why I’m so upfront about being from the Bay Area. I’m not a southern gal. I have so much appreciation for country music and that’s the kind of music I want to make. I had an ex that was a cowboy and I think I chased that for a bit, because I do love being out there in the early morning hours; people work hard and I appreciate that greatly. But when it got down to it, I know that’s not who I am and physically with my back, it’s just not something I could ever really do.”

Upon arriving back in Nashville, Nenni set to independently record and release what would become On The Ranch with producer and co-writer Mike Eli.  Emily used her “COVID money” to record the album.

On her first night back at Santa’s, Emily met booking agent Tommy Alexander, a talented touring artist himself. Tommy works for Wasserman, but at the time was running his own booking agency, Pilot Light. “I was listening to music,” Tommy says. “The radio or something, and she just came on, and I was like, who is this? I looked her up and didn’t see any booking contacts. Then I went to her Instagram and saw she was playing Santa’s Pub that night, so I went down there, saw her play, introduced myself and I forget if it was that night or the next day, but I know I was like, I would love to book you. And she was like, let’s do it. Like almost all good relationships, there was no struggle really. She took a big leap of faith with me I’m really grateful for.”

Once the record was done, Tommy asked if he could send it to New West Records to see if they were interested in releasing it. He had been booking Riley Downing and the Deslondes for some time who were on the label, so he reached out to his friend there, George Fontaine Jr. Turns out the label was well aware of Nenni, watching from afar. Label president John Allen went to a sparsely attended show, and Emily was as nervous as she’s ever been. She made it through her  set and shortly after had her first label contract; On The Ranch was released on Normaltown, a subsidiary of New West, in 2022. If it was successful, the next album would go out on New West proper. It was and it did. ‘Drive & Cry,’ dropped May 3rd on New West.

After 11 months on the road supporting On The Ranch, she wrote the new album in less than two months, before she hit the road again. With the house to herself (Teddy’s was touring Europe), she set to unleash her emotions once again to paper, to GarageBand, to tape. It sounds relentless, and Emily admits to checking herself from time to time. “I’m so fortunate,” Emily says. “That first year I got to work with Wasserman and New West I wanted to prove, like, hey, I am going to work hard for you. I wanted to express my gratitude for them even wanting to work with me. I’ve been wanting this for so long, to be a part of a booking agency and a label. And I want to work for it. It’s not like when you get signed your work is done; that’s where your work begins. If it means I don’t have to do my 10-7 job at the boot shop, then I got to do it. I don’t think I just shouldn’t work. I am happy to work.”

Drive & Cry is the first record Emily wrote alone, so she was motivated during that short time at home to write something that was a truer reflection of herself. It’s clear across the record, who is at the wheel here. “I wouldn’t call myself damaged goods,” she sings on ‘Set On The Steps.’ “To tell you true, I’m damaged for good. So if I shut down or act unkind, I’m just having good trouble cleaning up my mind.”

She wants to keep cleaning; keep writing and recording and working and having fun with her Teddy’s boys, as she calls them. There aren’t specific ambitions beyond that. “I have no five year plan,” she says. “I just want to keep progressing and learning and growing.”

“It can hurt when you grow,” she sings on ‘Changes,’ the album’s second single,’ “Be the sweetest piece of hell you’ll ever know.”

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